Sister Agatha meets us at the door.
‘Good morning,’ she says. ‘Thank you so much for coming. Peter is up on the fourth floor, so we’ll take the lift.’
Sister Agatha presses the button, and then stands with her hands lightly clasped in front of her as the doors close and the lift rises up.
‘So what happened?’
‘Peter was absolutely fine yesterday. Oh he has his health problems, of course, but nothing that’d leap out and bite you. Fine when he went to bed, no problems. Janice, one of our carers, she went in about half past three just to check on his catheter bag, you know. She didn’t want to disturb him so she just crept in and out like a little mouse. Janice is very, very good. But then when she went back in to give him his medications at six-thirty and tried to rouse him she found she couldn’t, poor thing. So then she rang the emergency bell, and we all came running. But I’m afraid it’s all too late.’
The lift slows to a stop and opens unexpectedly behind us. We follow Sister Agatha along a thickly carpeted hallway. In her blue robes and headdress, she seems to float rather than walk, a serene progress past beautiful old paintings of biblical scenes, intricately carved crosses, and, in a sweetly-kept alcove, lightened with a glass of blue wildflowers, the statue of a praying saint. The furthest door along the corridor stands open. Sister Ramirez is waiting for us there with Janice the carer, still wearing her plastic bib, shifting anxiously from foot to foot.
We go over to the narrow bed in the corner of the room, where Peter is lying on his back with his head turned to the side. I lay my hand over his chest and it feels cold, his pupils are wide and fixed, and there is already signs of pooling along the underside of his torso
‘I’m afraid Peter has died,’ I say to them. ‘I’m sorry.’
All three women give a collective sigh. Sister Agatha puts her hand on Janice’s shoulder, who leans her cheek against it. Sister Ramirez comes over to stand with me.
‘’Would you mind if I covered Peter with a sheet?’ she says.
The three women quietly convene round Peter’s bed, fetching out a clean white sheet from the bottom of the wardrobe and spreading it over Peter. I go back to my paperwork.
‘Because it’s classed as an unexpected death,’ I tell Sister Agatha, ‘we notify the police and they come to take over.’
‘But don’t be alarmed. It’s all just procedure. The police will guide you through the next stage, which is either for the coroner’s office to collect the body, or for you to organize something through your undertakers.’
‘I see, yes,’ says Sister Ramirez.
‘Sometimes it takes a while for the police to get here,’ says Rae.
Sister Ramirez smiles and opens her hands philosophically.
Sister Agatha steps forward.
‘What am I thinking?’ she says. ‘Wouldn’t you like something to eat? Some porridge, perhaps? A nice cup of coffee? You must be hungry.’
‘Coffee would be great, thank you. We can finish our paperwork downstairs.’
We collect all our equipment and follow her back to the lift.
The dining room is as neatly ordered as the rest of the home. Each table has been laid out for breakfast, bone-handled cutlery, china cups, saucers and plates, stainless steel jugs, toast racks, condiment pots.
‘Please,’ says Sister Agatha, walking over to one of the tables and silently pulling out two chairs. ‘What would you like?’
But no sooner have we settled in than the police arrive.
We go back upstairs with them to describe what we found, what we did. The officers are quietly spoken. One of them, an enormous guy with great tattooed arms and a monolithic, Easter Island head, has a permanent crook in his back as he tries to makes himself smaller. The sisters are as benign as ever. They answer all the questions with the same kind of calm composure that seems to run through this home as effectively as spiritual air-conditioning.
‘He was a good man, Peter,’ says Sister Ramirez, once the officers have replaced the sheet. ‘Can we get you something to drink? Some coffee perhaps?’
I hand our paperwork over to them, and then Rae and I go back down to the dining room to finish our tea and toast.
‘Would you like fresh?’ says another Sister, bustling across the room out of the kitchen to answer the front door.
‘No, thank you. This is fine.’
‘You do a grand job’ she says. ‘We’re all very thankful for it.’
She hurries out to the door.
‘I’ve forgotten how fantastic marmalade is,’ says Rae.
‘Hmm?’ I say, folding another slice into my mouth.
Just at that moment, a woman comes into the foyer. The Sister speaks to her in a low and urgent whisper. After a moment or two I glance in their direction. The Sister is still whispering to her, but now the woman is staring straight at me, her eyes wide and her hand over her mouth. She gasps, sobs once, loudly. The sister puts her arm around her shoulder and leads her off into another room.
‘It’s the way you eat,’ says Rae, breaking the silence and reaching over to the rack of toast. ‘Did you want that last slice, or…?’